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Overall view of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaking in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Sept. 22, 2023. Yaroslav Hunka watches and applauds at far right, centre.Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press

The House of Commons did not screen Yaroslav Hunka, the Ukrainian Canadian Waffen-SS veteran who received two ovations during a visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, for reputational risk, but only whether he could pose a physical threat to MPs, a Commons committee heard Tuesday.

Although Mr. Hunka’s name was forwarded to Parliament’s protocol staff by the office of then-Speaker Anthony Rota, an extensive check on his background was not done, MPs on the procedure and House affairs committee were told by senior parliamentary staff.

Greg Fergus, the current Speaker, has suggested that the screening of visitors to Parliament be upgraded, with those due to be publicly recognized in the gallery checked for reputational threats, MPs heard.

“Speaker Fergus has emphasized the need to institute additional screening measures to protect against not only physical security threats, but also reputational threats to Parliament and parliamentarians,” his spokesman Mathieu Gravel told The Globe and Mail in a statement.

“This screening would be conducted by House administration staff, as is the current process for individuals being recognized in the galleries following Question Period.”

In September, ovations in the Commons for Mr. Hunka, the 98-year-old SS veteran, sparked an outcry and caused international embarrassment. Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to the incident in an interview with former Fox news anchor Tucker Carlson.

Mr. Rota, the then-Speaker invited Mr. Hunka, a constituent, to Mr. Zelensky’s speech and pointed him out in the gallery, paying tribute to him as a Canadian and Ukrainian hero. After the details of Mr. Hunka’s past came out, Mr. Rota was sharply criticized by MPs of all stripes for inviting him, and not vetting him properly.

After sustained criticism and calls to resign, Mr. Rota stepped down, apologizing to the Jewish community and expressing “profound regret” for his error.

Mr. Rota had also requested a parliamentary parking space for Mr. Hunka on the day of the visit, referring to him as an “honoured guest,” the Commons committee learned.

Conservative and Bloc Québécois MPs questioned parliamentary officials and Steven MacKinnon, the Government Leader of the House, about how a former soldier in a Nazi division could have been invited to the House of Commons. They also raised concerns about his invitation by the Prime Minister to a reception in Mr. Zelensky’s honour the same day.

Commons staff presume background checks have been conducted on people proposed to sit in the public gallery, the committee was told.

Eric Janse, the Clerk of the House of Commons, said Commons staff did not do reputational checks on visitors to the gallery, and more time and resources would be required to do so.

Patrick McDonell, the Sergeant-at-Arms who is in charge of security in the Commons, suggested that had “open source” checks been done into Mr. Hunka by his staff, his past would have been unearthed.

The visit of Mr. Zelenksy was arranged on a tight deadline, with only about 1½-weeks’ notice, MPs heard, and such reputational checks are time-consuming. Parliamentary officials had not been made aware in advance that Mr. Rota was going to publicly recognize Mr. Hunka and had not been asked to carry out more extensive checks on him.

Mr. McDonell said screening of visitors to the Commons gallery included inputting names into a database to see if they appeared on a watch list. If they are given a “green light,” they are approved but if a “red light” appears – flagging people who may have a history of threats to MPs, senators or Parliament – a further investigation takes place. He said the Commons works with the RCMP and other police forces.

The procedure committee was told the list of people invited to sit in the gallery during Mr. Zelensky’s visit was not shared by parliamentary staff with the Prime Minister’s Office. But Conservative MPs questioned whether the Prime Minister may have been aware Mr. Hunka had been invited to Parliament on Sept. 22 as he had invited Mr. Hunka to attend a reception for the Ukrainian President in Toronto the same day.

Conservative MPs, including Michael Cooper, asked why on Sept. 20, two days before Mr. Zelensky’s visit, there was a text message exchange between the parliamentary protocol co-ordinator and the Prime Minister’s outreach adviser about a person on the Conservative guest list to the event. The Prime Minister’s staff member said the individual should not be on the list, as they were not on her list.

Mr. Cooper said this suggested that the Prime Minister’s Office may have had advance notice of who was on the list to sit in the gallery, including Mr. Hunka.

He said that the Prime Minister had concealed from Canadians that he had also invited Mr. Hunka to a reception and let Mr. Rota take the blame for the debacle, saying he had thrown the then-Speaker “under a bus.”

Mr. MacKinnon, the Government House Leader, said the Prime Minister had apologized for the affair, adding “we have acknowledged that this was a terribly embarrassing incident for Canada.”

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